Some of you have heard of these two people — certainly anyone who knows me has! Some of you may know about their careers — his as a Universalist preacher and the man who really organized American Universalism, and hers as the foremost female essayist of her day and an early advocate for women’s rights.
But even for people who do know these basic facts about John Murray and Judith Sargent, they do not know their love story — and it’s one that deserves to be told!
We have no way of knowing what actually happened when Judith and John first met on an early November day in 1774 in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
John Murray was 33 years old. He had been promoting the concepts of universal salvation and dismantling the dark and gloomy promises of Calvinism throughout the colonies as an itinerant preacher for almost four years. He was from England, a protégé of James Relly (who is considered the founder of Universalism), and a widower who had lost his young wife and infant son. He was someone who considered himself a failure to God because he had fallen into debt and even spent time in debtor’s prison. He felt unworthy to preach, which he had started doing as a young man under John Wesley and George Whitefield, and he had banished himself to America to live out his last days — only to rediscover and reclaim his calling as a preacher.
As John explained his first encounter with Universalism, which will give you a sense of what it was all about, he wrote, “The veil was lifted from my heart … It was clear, as any testimony in divine revelation, that Christ Jesus died for all, for the sins of the whole world, for every man, &c…and that every one, for whom Christ died must finally be saved … I conceived if I had the opportunity of conversing with the whole world, the whole world would be convinced. It might truly be said, that we had a taste of heaven below.”
Well, Judith in 1774 was 23 years old, the daughter of two of Gloucester’s most prominent families, and she was married to a ship owner and captain named John Stevens. She was bright, beautiful, inquisitive, largely self-educated, and among the group of Universalists that met in her father Winthrop Sargent’s home to discuss their chosen faith, Universalism.
In John’s autobiography, describing his arrival in Gloucester on that November day, he wrote:
“I had travelled from Maryland to New Hampshire, without meeting a single individual, who appeared to have the smallest idea of what I esteemed the truth, as it is in Jesus; but to my great astonishment, there were a few persons, dwellers in that remote place, upon whom the light of the gospel had more than dawned. The writings of Mr. Relly were not only in their hands but in their hearts.”
John decided to make Gloucester his home, and from now on Judith’s and John’s lives would be forever intertwined — first as pastor and congregant.
Again, we have no way of knowing what happened when they first met, but the meeting was clearly electric. In Judith’s first letter to John Murray, dated November 14, 1774 (which she made a copy of in her first letter book), Judith wrote to him:
If I am not mistaken in the character of the person I have the pleasure to address, it will be most agreeable to him, that I should lay aside all that awe, and reverence, which his unquestionable superiority demands, and approach him with the freedom of a sister, conversing with a brother whom she entirely esteems — I am not much accustomed to writing letters, especially to your sex, but if there be neither male nor female in the Emmanuel you promulgate, we may surely, and with the strictest propriety, mingle souls upon paper — I acknowledge a high sense of obligation to you, Sir, I have been instructed by your scriptural investigations, and I have a grateful heart — Your revered friend, Mr Relly, had taught me by his writings, the rudiments of the redeeming plan; but you have enlarged my views, expanded my ideas, dissipated my doubts, and led me to anticipate, and with sublime, and solemn pleasure, the coming of the resurrection… I have to request — if your leisure will allow, that you would honour me by a line and I pray you to believe me with all sentiments of esteem your most obedient &c &c
And it is through Judith’s letters, copied by her into letter books — which are simply blank volumes, just as we would create a journal today — that I am able to tell you this story. To date, John Murray’s personal correspondence has not been found, and may have been burned by Judith at his request.
We do know that her first letter to John started a lengthy and voluminous correspondence that went on for many years. John wanted to know everything Judith was doing and thinking and she obliged, often writing lengthy journal-style letters, starting a letter in the morning, adding to it throughout the day, and writing more the next day.
Judith defends John’s ministry
These were, of course, times of war and both Judith and John were deeply affected.
George Washington appointed John as chaplain of three Rhode Island regiments. Judith served as his eyes and ears in Gloucester, in one case writing to him about the presence of war ships off the coast describing “the most heart affecting distress” and their “Men bravely preparing for opposition.” John relied on her for news and her thoughts; the friendship was deepening.
While John was away, the Rev. Samuel Chandler of Gloucester’s First Parish and the Rev. Andrew Croswell of Boston, among others, initiated what would become years’ worth of attacks and legal battles against John’s ministry.
Judith became John’s fierce defender, writing to him:
“Thou Murray, art engaged in dispersing those dense clouds, which presumptuously o’er shadow our intellectual sun, and it is hence I pronounce thee happy — Go on, dear Sir, and may the God whom thou delightest to serve, grant thee success … How well digested is your plan, or rather how strong is truth — I do assure you, when you were so unceremoniously, and so publicly assaulted by the bold question[ers] universal palpitation seized me. When you sat down, and again when you arose, my cheeks were alternately flushed, and pale, and, during the torrent of interrogations, I could scarcely breathe — nor wonder, for if I have not yet found the path of truth, where alas! shall I turn? But, when I listened to the judicious, the calm responses of our Apostle, my soul became calm, assured, and perfectly confiding — May God forever bless you, indeed He hath blessed you, by thus [causing] you to encounter the various difficulties and to surmount them too.”
Judith became embroiled in the next couple of years’ worth of public denunciations and law suits that eventually resulted in the Gloucester Universalists winning the first ruling in this country for freedom of religion, and the building and dedication of the first Universalist meeting house in America. Again, Judith and John were really in this together.
Judith was very much involved with the Gloucester Universalist children as what we would call a religious educator. In 1782, she published a catechism for these children, which is considered the first published work by an American Universalist woman.
As Judith wrote to her friend Mary Pilgrim, “Mr Murray was then in Philadelphia — but upon his return he approved, he could not BUT approve, the sentiments he had instilled.” So it seems that John’s approval was important to her…
When John wasn’t travelling, he boarded with Judith. During his absences, her feelings for him are quite clear. In one letter she wrote to him:
“And art thou then gone, to be here no more! forbid it ye guardian spirits, whom we devoutly implore to shield our revered friend, and to protect him in this his tour of benevolence — Slow, sad, and solemn, did yesterday descend…— In vain we strayed in pursuit of peace … The room allotted to you appeared a dreary desert: Deep glooms brooded there, and your empty chair, stared upon us, wildly vacant … Through respect, as if by general consent, your seat was left empty[,] by mistake a cover was placed for you — fortunate accident — I will improve upon it — My table shall continue its accustomed order, nor shall any one occupy the vacant chair … untill you again fill the appropriated spot — should you no more return — I cannot help it — It is in vain I enlist reason [and] fortitude … Friendship, bereaved Friendship demands its dues —”
To make a very long and sad story short, Judith’s husband, John Stevens, finally confessed in 1785 that he was bankrupt. He and Judith spent the winter of 1785-86 barricaded in their home in Gloucester to protect John from the Sheriff who had orders to take him to debtor’s prison. John Murray did everything he could to reason with John Stevens’s creditors to no avail.
John Stevens fled Gloucester for the West Indies in May, leaving Judith frightened, poor, and ill.
John Murray took Judith away for a journey in the countryside to restore her health, and she saw John preach for the first time outside of Gloucester before crowds of hundreds — witnessing on a national scale how commanding a preacher and a leader he was.
Thanks to him, her health was restored.
Judith wrote to her parents:
“I owe much to this good Man — all who love me, had they no reason, would remember him with distinguished favor — his attentions to me have been unwearied, he hath, in every particular consulted my wishes, and my own dear Father, could not have been more solicitous respecting me…”
They returned home to renewed threats to John’s ministry. This time, he was advised to leave town and he decided to sail from Boston Harbor for England. At the same time, Judith had been informed of her husband’s death in the West Indies.
She was finally free to marry John, but neither one knew if he would be able to return. Before John set sail, in January of 1788, he finally told Judith how he felt about her and asked her to marry him.
Judith explained the details to her aunt, Mary Turner Sargent:
“Just at this juncture I received a letter from Mr Murray — It informed me that delicate attention to my honour, and feelings, had kept him silent, but driven, by the malice of his enemies, from the Continent, he could not depart without disclosing to me the treasured secret of his soul, since he might thus risque the happiness of his life — he could not but indulge a hope, that domestic felicity might yet be his — he acknowledged he had long loved me, even from the commencement of our acquaintance, with ardour loved me, but that he would have sacrificed his life, rather than have admitted a thought in this regard to me, which my own guardian angel would blush to own, but that, as I had now for many months been released from my early vows, he presumed to calculate upon a favourable hearing, and to supplicate, at least for a continuation of my esteem. I was now, you will allow, furnished with a fresh motive for admiration of him, who had at length avowed himself my Lover — How assiduous, and how honourable, through the course of a number of years, had been his deportment, how unwearied, and how disinterested his exertions — preferring, in every instance, the interest of Mr Stevens to his own, and pointing him out to me, in the most amiable light — How indefatigable were his endeavours to extricate us from our embarassments, to liberate Mr Stevens, and to continue him in his native place, and, after the departure of that unfortunate Man, how zealous to procure the suffrages of his Creditors, for his release — How just, how generous, how next to divine, was this procedure — who would have believed him activated by the passion which he now confesses.”
And, Judith finally admitted her feelings for John to Mary Turner Sargent:
“I was early, very early united in marriage to a worthy Man … Yet, although greatly sensible of his worth, my ungovernable heart, refused to acknowledge the softer emotions — I believed myself incapable of love, as traced by the pencil of the Poet…But the event which banished Mr Murray from America, effectively removed the vale, I was solicitous to yield in person that relief, which the balm of sacred friendship might supply, and that I was denied the privilege of sympathizing with a Man, whom I so much esteemed, and revered, was to me an agonizing consideration…In short I could no longer deceive myself, my soul became a scene of tumult, and upon every rising thought, was stamped too sure a confirmation, that I had in fact become a slave, to the most impetuous of all passions, of which I had, erroneously considered myself incapable….”
After five agonizing months, Judith was finally able to write to John that it was safe for him to return:
“I now hold the pen, with very different sensations from those which have heretofore agitated my bosom — My dear, my protecting friend is returning, there is no longer a necessity for his banishment, and I shall be — I shall be — in short I shall be very happy — a thousand times a day, do I whisper the tidings to my soul, My heart, my fond heart, throbs with esteem, and gratitude, hourly augmenting, and the pleasing perturbation of the little flutterer seems to render it too big for its enclosure … I cannot write, a kind of pleasing tumult takes possession of my soul, destroying that composure, which is necessary for the purpose of arranging my thoughts … yet, I ought to write, and this letter is intended to meet you in Boston — Welcome, then, my dearest friend — Thou art right welcome to the soul of thy Constantia.”
(“Constantia” was Judith’s public pen name and her private name with John.)
Judith and John faced another obstacle when John returned to Gloucester. Judith’s brother, Winthrop, did not approve of their marriage, and he had turned Judith’s other siblings against them. The reasons are not entirely clear, but from Judith’s letters it seems that they felt she was marrying beneath her, marrying someone who wouldn’t be able to support her, and Winthrop doesn’t seem to have liked John.
But Judith’s parents approved of John Murray, despite Winthrop’s objections, and Judith had long since known that their love was strong and enduring. It was, simply, a fact, God’s will, and out of her hands.
Judith and John were married secretly in Salem, Massachusetts. Judith wrote to her parents:
“The solemn transaction ... is at length passed, and the interests, the fame, the wishes, the hopes and the fears of Mr Murray, and your daughter, are henceforward inseparably united.”
To her niece, Anna Plummer, she wrote:
“For me, I confess that I am at present in possession of a much larger share of tranquility, than I had hoped would, upon this globe, be my portion, and, I am free to own, that to know myself the chosen companion of the Man of my heart — of a Man of sense, of a cultivated understanding, a strictly moral Man, and in the most extensive sense of the word — a Christian, answers the highest idea which I have ever formed of human happiness….”
And to John, she wrote, “I am indeed a happy bride.”
On their honeymoon journey south, Judith met John’s friends Vice President John Adams and Abigail Adams. A short time later, on a journey to Philadelphia for the first national Universalist convention, Judith met George and Martha Washington in New York. They moved together in high circles. They were both respected participants in national conversations. Today, we would call them a power couple!
Four months after they were married, Judith wrote to John while he was in Boston:
“Just 4 months will this day elapse, since I became a happy bride — Well but this you knew before … I must write you how I am, every change which takes place &c &c — Why my dear I am very much at your service, quite pleased with my husband, and perhaps as well, all things considered, as can be expected … I hope my letter has, or will reach you in safety — it will, I am positive, make you smile, and I am almost as certain, that it will produce upon your manly cheek, the tear of sensibility — your heart is highly susceptible — it is a good, a worthy heart, and it is the chief treasure of your admiring and faithfully affectionate Wife —”
They became parents in 1791, with the successful birth of their daughter Julia Maria. Sadly, a year and a half earlier, they had also shared the tragic loss of their stillborn son Fitz Winthrop. John was traveling again shortly after Julia Maria’s birth, and Judith wrote to him:
“The last time — near four months since — that I penned a letter to my best friend, I was struggling for that composure which the prospect then opening to my views, was but ill calculated to bestow — now, what a blissful reverse — I press my lovely infant to my transported bosom, and I am ready to characterize myself the happiest of Women.”
Both of their careers flourished. It is clear to me that John’s support, approval, and devotion enabled Judith to walk down paths few women traveled in the late 18th century.
While she had published her first essay on female abilities and self-worth in 1784, John Stevens’ troubles had caused her to set aside her writing. Now, she plunged in, starting in 1790 with her groundbreaking essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” which appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine. She would spend the rest of her life writing essays, poetry, and plays, or editing works by or about John Murray. She used the pen names Constantia, The Gleaner (a male persona), The Reaper, and Honora Martesia to champion equality, female education and economic independence, call for a virtuous and philanthropic republic, and respect for the natural world. And she promoted Universalism.
When she published her 1798 collection of essays and plays titled The Gleaner, she became, as far as we know, the first woman in America to self-publish a book.
It was said that while John Murray was traveling at this time, he was selling salvation AND subscriptions to his wife’s book!
On more than one occasion, it was assumed that John wielded the pen behind Judith’s work. Because of one particularly unpleasant such accusation about Judith’s first play, John had to defend his wife as the real author. In this letter to the editor, John addresses Thomas Paine, the editor of The Federal Orrery, one of Boston’s newspapers, who had advertised Judith’s play as the “joint production of Mr and Mrs Murray.”
In an unusual public display for this period of time, John wrote, “I declare in the most solemn manner, that I never saw a single sentence, line, or even word of the comedy…let, therefore, its merits, or demerits, remain with the real author—the fact is, that neither the one, nor the other, directly or indirectly belong to John Murray.”
John accepted the Boston Universalists’ offer to serve as their minister in 1793, and the family moved to “the Metropolis” the following year, to Franklin Place. John had been offered a similar position in Philadelphia with their wealthy congregation, but he knew Judith couldn’t bear to live so far away from her family.
John divided his time between serving his parish in Boston and traveling to preach elsewhere and counsel fledgling Universalist congregations.
During one such absence, Judith wrote to him:
“I do not know, my Love, in what light [your] absence may appear to you, but I confess that it is a very formidable foe to my peace — Upon our late tour to Philadelphia, constantly with you for six pleasing months, the returning evening, which hath been accustomed to present you, now materially adds to the cloud, which fate hath ordained, a heavy, and melancholy weight, upon the life which for one little period, enjoyed as much, as mortality could give...”
When John traveled, he often faced real danger, either on land, but certainly at sea. In 1797, on an ocean voyage to Portland, Maine, Judith wrote to her sister-in-law Anna Parsons:
“Mr Murray is not yet returned … He left Boston upon the 4th instant — the wednesday afternoon preceding the violent storm which you may perhaps recollect — he took passage for Portland in an eastward bound vessel, and as I had been kept awake the preceding night, by a variety of careful attentions, untill the dawn of day, I retired to rest early in the evening with the child — and slept untill between ten, and eleven o clock — When I was roused by a sound resembling the solemn knell by which we mark the departure of our friends, and instantly the bellowing winds with frightful violence shrieked around our dwelling, sleep was banished from my eyes, and quitting my pillow, in an agony beyond description, my bosom became the seat of the most heart affecting apprehension — I passed the night in alternately traversing up and down the apartment, and clasping to my bosom my sleeping infant, whom I addressed as a bereaved, and helpless Orphan — The morning however presented a number of kind friends, who endeavoured to soothe me by the strongest assurances that I had nothing to fear — but both the male, and female relations, of those who had friends on board the same vessel, crouded upon me with looks of terror inquiring if I had heard any tidings, and this circumstance was more than a balance to the well meant effort of those, who took an interest in seeking to calm the tumult in my soul — but no words can delineate the anguish of my spirit, when the Centinel on saturday morning gave information that many vessels eastward bound, were on wednesday night cast away in winter harbor, and a number of lives lost — at noon however my Cousin Henry — dispatched by his Father, as an angel of peace, hastened to me with the tidings that the vessel in which Mr Murray had embarked was seen on friday making her passage to Portland — yet still I rejoiced with fear and trembling, untill tuesday’s post brought me a letter written by his own hand, and containing the assurance of his safety…”
When John wasn’t traveling, he still faced opposition in Boston from those who objected to his ministry. His safety was always a concern.
During one such instance, Judith wrote to her cousin Epes Sargent:
“Mr M— went out the ensuing morning, at eight O’clock, he had intended to have returned immediately — but those attentions which he was necessitated to pay to many sick friends, and others of his congregation, unexpectedly detained him — not impressed by those frightful apprehensions which tortured my bosom, he neglected to apprize me of his movements, and I neither saw, nor heard of him again, untill near twelve o’clock at night! The day wore gloomily away — when the solitary candle was lit for the evening, my spirit seemed to die within me — scarcely could I draw up a breath [—] When the clamorous bells proclaimed the hour of nine — but what were my sensations when the clocks from the neighboring steeples announced ten, and eleven — and no husband!!! — I can command no language which is sufficiently comprehensive to describe the anguish of my spirit — We sallied forth in quest of our Wanderer — but this, in this Town of Boston, without a male Protector, was a perilous enterprize, and where to direct our steps we knew not — Fortunately, however, we had not proceeded far, when we met the object of our care, returning home, as tranquil, as integrity, and as unconsciousness of having given occasion of sorrow — could render him — his cheerful greetings banished our apprehensions for the night, but for many succeeding days they returned with more or less force, as the situation of my mind assumed a perturbed, or placid aspect….”
Judith’s other real concern was for John’s health. John exhausted himself, as a preacher and organizer. He would travel for months at a time, and return home sick and worn out. After one journey to Philadelphia, Judith wrote:
“Mr Murray is indeed very ill, he is confined through the week, altogether to his chamber, and almost wholly to his bed. Upon the last, and upon two sabbath days, he was prevailed upon to suspend his pulpit labours — but last sunday, ill as he was, he was conveyed in a close carriage to church, from whence he returned immediately to his chamber, and to his bed — his sufferings are beyond description — the tumor is neither [distressed], nor does it approach to supperation; it is hard, distinct, and prominent — possibly it is of the scirulus kind! — even his physician admits this idea — my spirit seems to die within me, at the view of a calamity so pregnant with evil; so fatal in consequences!! Yet, have I not enjoyed much, and by what right can I plead an exemption from the ills which are incident to humanity....”
Still, Judith was resigned to his calling, or as she wrote, “Heaven seems to have designed him, an itinerant promulgator of the doctrines of revelation, and, it becomes me to acquiesce…”
John Murray’s demise
Life went on. They worked, raised their daughter, boarded and entertained nieces, nephews, and the children of family friends whose education Judith oversaw. And they really struggled financially.
One day, in 1809, John’s tireless efforts on behalf of Universalism caught up with him. He suffered a paralyzing stroke. While his mind was still alert, he could not move the left side of his body. He was bedridden. It took three men to lift him from his bed to a chair, or outdoors to a carriage.
Judith was devastated, but, of course, she did everything she could to make him comfortable. When she cancelled her annual summer visit to her family in Gloucester one year, John insisted she go, writing to her about how much he regretted making her life so difficult. She wrote back to him:
“My Dear, my beloved, my venerable sufferer
Who says that you have not been made to me an instrument of great good? Who says that you ought to be second to any in my gratitude, in my affection? Was it not by your mouth that our God, and Father, thought best to show me the way of life more perfectly, and is there not many a denunciation, which being found in holy writ, would have harrowed up my affrighted soul, had not thy irradiated mind, by dispersing the clouds, produced the luminous comment repleat with peace, life, and happiness? Are you not the Father of my child? Is there, can there be a more excellent thing, do I not in her enjoy that desideration for which my soul long languished, and which I have hailed as heav[e]n’s best gift? Away then with every recurrence to accidental evils, to the thorn in the flesh, to human frailties, from which no mortal is exempt. What are the fading evils of time, to the substantial felicity in possession, and reversion, of which you have been made to me the beloved medium. Talk not of forgiveness, of offences, or of pardon, but let us mutually bear, and forbear, and let us hand in hand pursue the rugged path, which yet remains, until we arrive at that beatified state, where sin nor sorrow will no more invade, and where we shall be completely blessed.... May God forever bless you [—] I am truly your faithful and affectionate Wife.”
During this time, as ill as he was, Judith helped her very determined husband edit and publish his two-volume book titled Letters and Sketches of Sermons which was important for the Father of American Universalism to complete. The book appeared in 1812, and although it did not produce the income they hoped for John’s work did provide the world with a text of his thoughts and preachings.
Again, they were in this together.
Finally, after almost six years as an invalid, John died in September of 1815. Two services were held — one in Gloucester, the other in Boston, which included a parade through the principle streets until he was buried at Granary Burying Ground. Judith wrote to her brother Winthrop:
“My beloved, my sympathizing brother,
Many weeks, in the estimation of calamity years, have passed on since I last addressed you. During this period I have watched the expiring moments of my long suffering, my venerable, my now beatified husband. His demise took place on Lord’s day morning 3d instant, at 6 oclock, and as the interment of his precious remains, could not be delayed, he was entombed on the following monday evening 4th instant, with all the ... arrangements, and honours, which his now mourning and deeply penetrated congregation, could bestow. My respectable husband died as he had lived, bearing unequivocal testimony to the grand, and fundamental truths of revelation … and thus have been laid in the grave a Man, to whom from sentiment and from principle, my heart, my soul was engaged, and thus is your sister once more a widow — A Widow — desolate sound — but I too shall soon lift my head on high, for my deliverer, my Redeemer still lives, and the time of my emancipation draweth nigh … I will yield to the remonstrances of an aching heart, a swimming head, and trembling fingers, which are momently stimulating me to relinquish my pen [—] I am, most devotedly, your affectionate and deeply affected sister”
After John died, Judith completed and published his autobiography. Sadly, because John stopped writing it in the mid-1770s, there is no mention of Judith except for a brief passage she included at the end simply stating that John had enjoyed a second marriage.
She lobbied to have the new Universalist church in Boston named the Murraytanian Church, but they were not interested.
Judith’s final days
Judith had hoped to spend her remaining days in Boston. As she wrote to her brother Winthrop, “I decided to retain this house, and to lay my dying head in the same spot, and upon the same pillow, which received that of my departed, my venerable husband,” and be buried with him, but that wasn’t to be.
Her daughter had married a Harvard student from Natchez, Mississippi, named Adam Lewis Bingaman, who now sent for his wife and infant daughter. Judith — who couldn’t bear to part with her daughter and granddaughter — went with them.
What happened next is unclear, because no letters have been found from Judith’s brief time in Natchez. She died there less than two years later, and is buried in the Bingaman family cemetery. “Dear spirit, the monumental stone can never speak thy worth,” are the words her daughter, Julia Maria, inscribed on her mother’s stone. They could just as easily speak for her father.
Sadly, because Judith died in Natchez, in death, Judith and John lie 3,000 miles apart.
Timeless love story
They enjoyed a 27-year marriage that followed a 14-year friendship,
She became the most important female essayist of her day, challenging the new American nation to be virtuous, fair, and philanthropic; to improve female education, respect women’s abilities, and allow them to participate as full citizens.
He would always be known as the Father of American Universalism, forever dismantling the dark days of Calvinism in favor of a more hopeful and meaningful life here and in the next world.
Together, as pastor and congregant, as friends, and then as husband and wife, they believed they were in “the path of duty.”
They were equal partners who loved, respected and supported each other.
They had what we all want, and for that reason theirs is truly a timeless love story.
2011 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Independent scholar, author, and public speaker Bonnie Hurd Smith specializes in telling women's history stories that inform, inspire, and motivate. She is also the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.